Recently a photographer friend of mine graciously volunteered to take a few headshots of me. I didn’t need a full session since I was only looking for one very specific shot. For some time now, I’ve been noticing how a lot of TV shows seemed to have some kind of supernatural bent. Although I’m generally called on to play psychotic killers, I’ve lately been looking for a way to break into the new elite category of “Alien” killers. My slightly goofy, bespectacled photos just weren’t cutting it (Apparently aliens don’t wear bargain frames from Lens Crafters) so I was looking for a simple shot that would highlight my freakier side.
My friend is a very talented photographer and extremely easy to work with. He was great at getting me to relax my face and warm up to the camera. It was actually fun and he generously shot way more photos than I needed. Last week, he sent me the link so I could view the proofs on line. I’ve been stalling because I know what’s about to happen: My annual photographic identity crisis.
Let me start out by saying that although I know it’s a part of my job, I hate having my picture taken. There’s a reason for this. I’m not particularly photogenic. I’m not fishing for compliments here. I don’t think I’m a hideous toad or anything, but for some reason the camera and I rarely seem to get along. My ex was a handsome guy; not a GQ model, but he always looked remarkably good in pictures. It was astounding. No matter how casual the situation; how rotten the lighting, he always looked great. Blessed with solid bone structure and a strong chin, even his DMV picture was cute. I always resented him a little for that.
I, on the other hand, have a somewhat asymmetrical face (which I don’t really mind in life) but always looks sort of weird to me when frozen on film. Forced to look at multiple shots of myself, suddenly nothing is to my liking. Every feature is too big or too small; too high or too low, too close or too far apart. Photographs also rob me of my most treasured illusion: that I’m still a young, up-and-coming person in show business; that I’m just a kid with my whole life ahead of me. These days, there's a somewhat more mature set of eyes gazing back at me from the proof sheet.
In the early days of my career, I always ordered far too many copies of my headshots. It wasn’t so much a case of narcissism as much as it was a desperate attempt to define myself in some way. Being young, I didn’t really know who I was or what kind of actor I wanted to be. While one shot seemed to reveal my funny, lovable side, another made me look sort of intense and angry; while yet another suggested I could do sad, waifish characters. Since I naturally wanted play all those roles someday, I assumed that the best plan was to order 50 copies of each look. Of course, no agent I ever worked with wanted more than two shots: One smiling / One not. Case closed.
In those days, I was also obsessed with finding the “right” photographer. If I could somehow make a perfect “artist-to-artist” connection, then that person’s camera would at long last reveal my as-of-yet untapped genius! This led to a couple of expensive disasters along the way. Once, I showed up (with my eight changes of clothing) and was met at the door by a loopy photographer who instantly proclaimed that that I looked “waaay too tense.” Looking back, I should have been a little suspicious since she was drinking a glass of wine at eleven o’clock in the morning, but I was a little green back then. Somehow, I let her talk me into getting stoned before the session. It would “loosen me up,” she promised. The lady was in possession of some killer weed and all I remember is laughing my ass for the next two hours. However, when I got the prints, my eyes were half-closed and I looked utterly and completely baked. When I showed them to my agent, he remarked, “Well, these will be great if Cheech and Chong ever do another movie.”
Having sat in the director’s chair a couple of times in my life, I can tell you that when it comes to headshots, simple accuracy is helpful. One common mistake is when an actor chooses a hugely flattering shot of themselves. That’s all fine and well if you happen to be drop-dead gorgeous. But if you’re only a “nice-looking” person, you need to be prepared for some sighs of disappointment when you walk in the door. This is Hollywood. If they are looking for eye candy, believe you me, they can find it.
The second most common mistake is even deadlier. When you hand a potential employer your headshot, the last thing you want them to be thinking is: “When the hell was this taken?” Hollywood is a city obsessed with youth and (like it or not) everyone here has a keen eye. If you drop a photo on the table that looks like it was taken ten years ago, the first question uttered after you leave the room will be: “How old do you think she is?”
I’ve been teaching an acting class lately and one of the things I try to stress is developing a strong personal sense of truth. And truth is definitely something you want to filter down to how you choose to represent yourself. All any of us needs is one or two appealing photographs that actually look like us. In a perfect world, that picture also conveys the only things of value we have to offer the artistic process: our humor, our beauty and our flaws. In short: our actual honest-to-God selves. Photographic legend Annie Leibovitz once said, ‘When I photograph someone, what it really means is that I want to get to know them.” That’s a lovely sentiment and one that I suspect is true for many photographers. So the next time somebody points a camera at you, don’t flinch. Say “cheese.” Give ‘em the whole picture.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv